My Latest Expirament

Thanks to my composition inquisitor (aka teacher), I have been working on a piece completely unlike any other I have attempted as of yet. Scott challenged me to  abandon my usual frame of having a story to compose  and instead  write what is called a Visual-Spacial notation piece. Basically the piece does not have bar lines to designate strict meter subdivisions. Instead, it leaves it up to the performers to designate where the musical figure is to fit within where the designated time specifies. It calls for ordered improvisation with a demand for the group to play as an ensemble.  So far, the piece looks like this:

(Click picture for a larger view)

Composing this piece has forced me to think more freely about musical lines and textures and to consider multiple possibilities for the building blocks of a work.  Along the way, my teacher has had me looking at various scores with non-traditional notation by Cage, Varese and others I may not have picked up otherwise and we have discussed them in our lesson. Many Cagian  ideas such as indeterminacy have made it into this piece as a result. For example, I got the idea for how to break up the time by rolling dice except for the 30 second section, where I anticipate the performer to successfully make a sandwich with the ingredients already set (mainly because I timed this myself at home).

Other than the fact that I am using kitchen percussion and adding the humorous element of a musician making a sandwich for no other reason than to add improvised non- traditional sounds, this piece lacks a preconceived story and instead has its own underlying framework. Although I anticipate that the piece will sound “wonkey” if and when it is performed, I have enjoyed trying to think within this loose structure.


  1. Hi Samantha!

    I’ve never written a visual-spatial piece, but it seems pretty fun to write in an idiom that is vastly unfamliar. I typically use traditional notation with the help of a some invented or borrowed notation for extended techniques. However, I have played a few pieces with that writing technique before. One that comes to mind is Session 3 by William Bolcom–you should check it out if you’d like more inspiration. I also remember looking at a string quartet by Witold Lutosławski that was pretty great.

    Happy composing!


    1. Thank you for bringing these pieces to my attention Sakari! I will have to listen and look at them soon. As far as the visual special notation goes, I encourage you to try it. It really opened my eyes to new possibilities. When Scott, my teacher, asked me to try composing in this style, all that I was told to do was pick 5 instruments, one of which was percussion, and to NOT have a story, as many of my pieces have some sort of elaborate tale attached to them. He gave me the guidelines as to how I could separate time on the paper and then “go crazy” and come up with the key myself. He is working with me on edits and has thrown in the occasional suggestion but has left the construction entirely up to me. If you tried this type of piece, you would get to invent all of the notation if you really wanted and there are basically no rules!

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